Nicholas C. DiDonato
In the West, the concept of God has a wide range of meanings, including a supernatural person-like agent, an impersonal force, pure actual being, beyond being, and many more. Thus, in applying psychology to one’s perception of God, psychologists typically limit themselves to the first conception. Still, the results can be fascinating. Psychologist Bart Soenens (Ghent University, Belgium) and colleagues applied the study of interpersonal relationships to religiosity and found that how one perceives one’s relationship with God affects whether one approaches religious claims symbolically or literally.
More specifically, the researchers used a type of interpersonal psychology called self-determination theory. Self-determination theory breaks relationships down into two styles: autonomy-supportive and controlling. An autonomy-supportive approach to a relationship fosters openness, freedom, and empathy, encouraging the other person in the relationship to make meaningful, independent choices. By contrast, a controlling approach seeks to manipulate the other person. Such manipulation can occur externally through rewards and punishments or internally through guilt and conditional love.
Conceiving of God as person-like enough such that self-determination theory applies, the psychologists wondered what difference it makes if a religious believer sees his or her relationship with God as autonomy-supportive or controlling. They predicted that both autonomy-supportive and controlling relationships will allow for a transcendent God but that the former would correlate with a symbolic approach to religiosity and the latter to a literal approach.
To test their predictions, the researchers gathered a sample of religious Dutch-speaking Belgians by contacting people who participated in religious lectures or activities. Those who responded positively to the request completed a series of five surveys. The first determined whether the participant saw his or her relationship with God as autonomy-supportive or controlling by adapting the normal self-determination theory survey accordingly. The second survey, the Relatedness to God scale, had participants describe their attachment to God and their dissatisfaction with God (for example, “I wish God were different”). The third assessed the participants’ image of God with the Loving and Controlling God scales (for example, is God rejecting/accepting, approving/disapproving, strict/lenient, etc.). Fourthly, the participants stated their “most important religious activity in which (their) attitude towards religious beliefs is particularly expressed” (e.g., prayer), and then they indicated their motives for doing that activity (all of the motive options involved self-determination theory—e.g., “Because I would feel bad when I didn’t do it”). Fifth and finally, the participants completed the Post-Critical Belief Scale (PCBS), which assessed whether people believe in a transcendent reality and whether they interpret religion literally or symbolically. A symbolic approach connotes openness while a literal approach connotes rigidity.
As expected, those who perceived their relationship with God as autonomy-supportive had a symbolic interpretation of religion while those who perceived it as controlling had a literal interpretation of religion. Both styles viewed God as transcendent. Additionally, an autonomy-supportive view of the God-self relation correlates with feelings of attachment toward God, seeing God as loving, and being satisfied with God. Interestingly enough, a controlling view showed ambivalence: on the one hand, it correlated with feelings of attachment to God but, on the other, it also correlated with being dissatisfied with God and did not correlate with the image of God as love. Similar findings appear in the reports of teenagers who perceive the relationship with their parents as controlling. Importantly, some of the participants indicated that their relationship with God has elements of both autonomy-supportive and controlling behaviors—the two do not necessarily exclude each other.
The authors conclude, “For religious people… to experience a sense of psychological freedom in one’s religious behaviors, it thus seems important to have a perception of God as accepting one’s weaknesses and as providing choice.” In other words, in order to engage religion in a symbolic, open, and flexible way, most people must first see God as unconditionally allowing people to be who they are. Of course, it would have been nice if the psychologists allowed choices for the conception of God other than God as a human-like agent in the sky—but that would require a deeply symbolic and open engagement with religion.
For more, see “How Do Perceptions of God as Autonomy Supportive or Controlling Relate to Individuals’ Social-Cognitive Processing of Religious Contents? The Role of Motives for Religious Behavior” in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.